In preparing a post on graffiti in the West Bottoms I happened upon a wall with crudely written graffiti: “One dead cop is a good start”. Immediately my focus shifted from the West Bottoms to graffiti focused on gangs and violence. It isn’t hard to find.
Kansas City has well over 3000 gang members, far in excess of the number of local police. A small number of Kansas City gangs are extensions of gangs that originated in other parts of the country. Most are loosely organized neighborhood groups. Some are well-organized and highly disciplined. Others consistent of friends who seek community and protection within their own neighborhoods. Kansas City has gangs of both kinds. Both can be dangerous to the gang members and the communities in which they live.
Graffiti is the language and culture of the streets. Often the language is clear and threatening. More often, it is only understood by the gang members themselves and, perhaps, rival gangs to whom they are sending a message–whatever message that may be.
Along Troost near Brush Creek, three walls were smeared with the word “Death”. In a neighborhood where the violent deaths of young men are rampant, only a fool would ignore the potential threat suggested by the language. Below, the inclusion of the skull on a wall of otherwise seemingly unintelligible letters is ominous.
It would be foolish to suggest that all hostile graffiti can be backed up by force, but the intimidation is there nonetheless.
While each of us wants to believe that gang activity is in someone else’s neighborhood, that would be wrong. I found graffiti identifying the 18th Street Gang on Truman Road, less than a mile from the center of Independence. Surely I jest, you may say. In fact, the 18th Street Gang is known to be located in the territories of both William Chrisman and Truman High Schools. It is certainly possible that a teenager, with just a bit of gang knowledge, painted the wall, but it is more likely the gang is marking its territory. The 18th Street Gang is a multi-ethnic gang that started in Los Angeles. It operates throughout the U.S. and in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Canada.
Drive through the streets of the City and you will find markers for other gangs. Surenos 13 (13 stands for the letter “M” indicating it is a Mexican gang) operates in North Kansas City. Like the 18th Street Gang it is a national organization with most of its membership in California. This graffiti found just off I-35 on the Northeast side of downtown indicates that the Surenos claim some territory South of the river.
This next graffiti has me confused. The three-pointed crown with the dots above the points appears to me to mark territory of the Latin Kings. But crowns can be identified with gangs other than the Latin Kings. I have seen numerous similar inscriptions East of Downtown. The Latin Kings are one of the largest Hispanic street gangs in the U.S, They originated in Chicago in the 1940s. In Kansas City they operate both East and West of Downtown.
Throughout our wonderful community there are telephone poles, bridges, walls of deserted buildings, walls of businesses filled with symbols similar to those above. They are designed to instill fear, claim territory and warn off potential rival gangs. You and I drive past these markers on a daily basis and don’t even notice they are present.
While most of the street graffiti is confusing, the language of the street is not always capable of being understood only by the “initiated”. Some writings are easy to understand. This expression of grief is for the death of a loved one, almost surely the victim of violence in our streets.
There are so many reasons people join gangs. Maybe that can be the focus of another blog on another day. But today, I want to simply reflect on the reality that not all graffiti is fun. Some of it is bad, sad and gang related.